Athletics Athletics

Comic Kirui plots Olympics last laugh


NAIROBI, Kenya, March 27- Abel Kirui was the toast of the town in the summer of 2009 when he nailed down the world marathon title in a championship record of 2:06:54 in Berlin.

That scorching performance that saw Kenya record her first ever 1-2 finish at the pristine event when he led compatriot Emmanuel Mutai across the Brandenburg Gate was supposed to be the launch pad of his explosion in the World Marathon Majors circuit.

Only that for the next two years, it proved to be a false dawn as he struggled to replicate the heights as he almost became the forgotten man of marathon running.

“The life of an athlete is very strange. Sometimes, you encounter some problems,” the runner who could easily pass for a stand-up comic said in his training base in Iten when a team of international journalists under the IAAF Day in Life Project visited him.

In 2010, Kirui checked in at the London Marathon among the favourites and went ahead to lead the race for large spells only for a late collapse to see him return home fifth in 2:08:04.

“I was excited because of the welcome I received at home and I underrated Kebede, just like (Augustine) Choge underestimated Mo Farah in 1,500m and he lost.

“I was praised after the World Championships and I did wrong calculations. I finished everybody in the start and the guy was behind me relaxing and I lost concentration after running out of gas,” he admitted as Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kedebe eased past him for the title on that occasion.

His New York Marathon debut later in the year did not go as planned as he faded to ninth (2:13:01) and at the beginning of last year, another London assault collapsed under the ignominy of Did Not Finish.

“I remember when I came from London where I did not finish since I had a small chest problem. I cleared it since I am sensitive, when I feel something is not good, I have to clear as early as possible,” he explained.

With the Daegu World Championships around the corner, Kirui was initially overlooked as Athletics Kenya (AK) named a provisional squad of ten to compete for his title.

However, luck was around the corner since most of the elite athletes invited declined the chance and Kirui got his opportunity as a wildcard entry as the crown holder. The rest as the cliché goes is history.

On the streets of the metropolitan city of Daegu, Kirui raced to history, aided by the scarcely believable 14:17 split between the 25km and 30km that obliterated the field as he completed his golden run in 2:07:38, the second fastest performance at the event.

“I prepared myself with full focus to show Kenyans that I’m still there to represent and make goods for them,” he noted of his epic triumph as he became the first twice Worlds marathon winner from his nation and only third man in history to retain the crown.

Now back to the big time, Kirui who won the Barcelona Half Marathon on February 26 with a 60:28 performance to offer a tacit reminder of his talent is among the six probables that will battle for the London Olympics tickets in the men’s Kenyan team.

His transformation from an almost also run to the pedestal of ultimate distance running begun taking shape last year when he switched his training from his native Kapsabet to Iten under the watchful eye of veteran Italian coach, Renato Canova.

During his work-out witnessed by the international press people, Canova was seen to try and curb his sometimes excessive enthusiasm that according to him saw Kirui over train for the botched 2010 New York Marathon.

“Canova is a man almost 70, so old is gold all the time. He has the wise words and wise programmes. If you follow what he tells you, you will succeed.

“He gave good programmes and I respect him as a grand father.”

Four of the six Olympics probables including Kirui will line-up at the London Marathon in a contest that is all but the Kenyan Trial for the Summer Games.

With a career best of 2:05:04 achieved at the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon, he will face World record holder, Patrick Makau (2:03:38), Frankfurt winner, Wilson Kipsang (2:03:42) and defending champion, Mutai (2:04:40) at a showdown where the clock will be of much interest as the contest.

“We are going to London a very strong team. Moses Mosop is thinking of making something in Rotterdam which is a good course to break the world record. This time, 2:03, 2:02 is not far and we could do something great in London,” he predicted.

“What gives me confidence that when my body is on its own I’m under no pressure or worries. The worry is when the body is not able to be at the same level with the engine.

“It will be very tough and it depends on the wisdom of the runner and training. There is some Fartlek inside, speed work inside, tension among the competitors. It needs a lot of care,” he added.

Chicago Marathon winner, Mosop (2:03:06) as well as Boston (2:03:02) and New York (2:05:05) champion and course record holder, Geoffrey Mutai are the others in the London probables sextet.

“Geoffrey and Mosop are very dangerous,” he confessed.

With four sub 2:04 performances recorded by Kenyans last season, Kirui was inevitably asked what had caused the explosion of super fast times by his country’s ultimate distance runners.

“Compared to the previous times, people used to train two months before the race and this is not happening now. People have a closed programme and competing in different races and this is improving the speed,” he offered.

Kirui does not believe he had to be subjected to what is tantamount to a gladiatorial fight for Olympics selection after heeding the call from Athletics Kenya (AK) to represent the country in Daegu as others snubbed the federation.

“I feel I should be at the Olympics because I was promised. They said when they were selecting people running in Korea that whoever is going to become number one has a chance to go to the Olympics,” he decried.

But he believes an appearance in London is a matter of personal destiny.

“Even if you ask my wife, my dream was not even to run the World Championships, it was to run in the 2012 London Olympics. I had predicted that when I was a new athlete. It’s high time to prove myself in London so that I can show I can bring something from the Olympics.”

After he won his second Worlds gold, Kirui sagged into his knees in prayer for his friend, the late Samuel Wanjiru whose title is up for grabs at the London Olympics.

“I was so downcast about the death of Wanjiru. We travelled together in a private jet (to 2010 London Marathon) eating together; laughing together the guy had a good heart. When he passed away, I was so sorrowful. I prayed for Wanjiru before I ran in Daegu.

“He would have had a wildcard for the Olympics, he was a strong guy and we could have shared the experience to attack the Ethiopians because they are the toughest people to fight in London,” he paid his tributes to the fallen icon.

Following that emotional turn, focus returned to his twin world titles and which he relished the most.

“Berlin was tactical and more challenging, in Korea, I ran until I was laughing alone since I was in my own very good shape,” he said with an infectious laugh.

Upon his return from his conquests, Kirui, an Administration Police officer was first promoted to a Sergeant then Inspector. Should he excel at the biggest sporting event on them all, how high a rank does he expect to be pinned on his uniform?

“I don’t want to push my force, it’s like my father, when he buys me clothes, it is up to him to decide which to buy when I achieve my best.

“My hope is that they can give us something that last long like an asset since we need something to go back to when we retire.”

In conclusion he adds, “My feeling this year is quite different from how I have felt in other year. This is the peak of my life in running.”

With that, he retreats to his double room humble dwelling in his training camp adorned with various news cuttings of articles done about his triumphs away from the magnificence of his Kapsabet mansion.

– Courtesy IAAF Day in Life Project/Pictures: Getty Images